To quote Jack Benny: "There will now be a slight pause while you say 'Who cares?'"
It's a list that sprang unbidden into my petite cranium as I was doing research into vaudeville. Until I started plowing through that information, I hadn't realized how much comedy heritage (and stolen material) has been passed down from one medium to the next medium through the last 200 years of American history. From showboat to minstrel show to stage to radio to film to television to the Web, a long line of performers, most of them forgotten, have preserved a unique set of American approaches to comic performance.
Each generation has its favorites. Most of time, the preceding generation finds the new comic constellation offensive and tasteless, and the succeeding generation finds the stars of yesterday corny, lame and hopelessly unfunny. My own choices pin me decisively to that period when TV was still a novel enterprise, and comics were just starting to write their own material, instead of buying it off the street.
These choices don't reflect my top 10 in terms of critical estimation. Richard Pryor will always be, for me, the greatest comic who ever lived; but until the mid-'70s, I didn't know who he was. I was (and am) a SQUARE Midwestern kid -- Rickles, Dangerfield, Bishop, Hackett and the like were part of an East Coast/Vegas axis I never got. Sahl and Gregory were way out of my league. The innovations of Bruce and Carlin, Firesign Theatre and Cheech & Chong didn't hit me, oddly enough, until I went to college and got high. Still later, I "found" Jonathan Winters, Robert Klein, Nichols & May, W.C. Fields, Spike Jones, Redd Foxx and the rest.
These are the shadows and voices I watched and listened to as a kid, gapemouthed in front of the stereo or the black-and-white TV set. I was just a bit too young for Sid Caesar, unfortunately. Everybody drank and smoked; on the screen, men wore tuxes and ladies wore evening gowns. These are people who first made me laugh -- the ones who astonished me but also made me feel as though I do do that, too. They made me say, "I'm going to do that when I grow up." And I did!
In no particular order:
The second album I ever heard? "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart." Some claim that he ripped his one-sided conversation routine concept from Shelley Berman -- but then, Berman stole it from George Jessel. And Bob is funnier -- somehow, he plays straight man to a world of imagined voices. A master of timing who also, like Jack Benny, was happy to be the butt of the humor. His TV shows cemented his reputation.
The Smothers Brothers
Alive! So damn alive. A great singer, a great heart. And she knows just how to push an expression a hair's breadth over the edge into comic insanity. What's more, her work contains an undercurrent of vulnerability that's deeply touching. She is smart enough to surround herself with writing and performing talent, and shares the spotlight generously. Absolutely nothing got between our family and her show.
Laurel and Hardy
The Marx Brothers